Sunday, June 28, 2015

Planetary Pavane Part 5: Across the Sky

I hope you've had the opportunity to enjoy the sight of Venus and Jupiter in the evening sky as they've appeared to close the distance between them in recent weeks.  Over the past month the two worlds have dominated the western sky in the hours after dark as the combined motions of Jove, Aphrodite and of course our own planet have brought the two brightest planetary bodies in the Solar System nearly to their closest apparent approach, an event that will happen on the evening of 30 June.

Tonight, though Venus and Jupiter are quite obviously closer together in our western skies than they were when we began watching them a few weeks ago, I want to direct your attention to yet another event--this one involving our own Moon and another of the Gas Giant planets.

Go out this evening and take a few minutes to admire the changing aspect of Venus and Jupiter; take note of their differing brightnesses and the steadily-decreasing apparent distance between them.  And then, look to the south-eastern sky.

There!  Just to the lower-right of the swelling gibbous-phase Moon--a bright spark of golden light.  This is Saturn, the "lord of the rings" and certainly the most beautiful of the Sun's retinue of planets.  Sixth planet from the Sun, over ninety-five times as massive as our Earth and accompanied in her orbit 'round the Sun by the sixty-two natural satellites (moons) so far discovered.

With a small telescope the rings would be clearly visible, plus one or perhaps two of the second-largest planet's moons, just as magnification reveals atmospheric details and four of Jupiter's satellites.  Tonight, however, I am enjoying the dance of the planets as my ancestors did in the days of Aristarchus and Hypatia, Ptolemy and Brahe.  I watch the Wanderers ('Planetes' in the Greek) and wonder at them, charting their movements against the "fixed" background stars and trying to divine their natures from my observations.  Observing the closing gap between Jupiter and Venus, or the slow but perceptible crawl of Luna past the relatively stationary point of light that is Saturn in the evening sky, I feel a kinship with the Ancients, and with the sky itself.

Come watch with me as the worlds move about us.

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